Dispute over affirmative action overshadows admissions issues


Josh Gladstone

Many people believe that that minority status greatly improve college admissions chances. However, status as an athlete or as a legacy provides a greater boost in one’s chances.

Taeyeon Kim, News Editor

In a world where students who attend competitive colleges have huge advantages in employment, the issue of admissions policies has become highly controversial. Colleges’ race-based affirmative action policies are being called into question.

Affirmative action is rooted in an attempt to promote diversity among student populations and to offer a remedy to persistent systems of inequality. The disenfranchisement of members of ethnic minorities in primary and secondary school education can lead to the false impression that such students appear less accomplished, prepared, or resourceful than members of more privileged ethnic groups when it comes to resumes. While affirmative action alone cannot remedy the consequences of generational inequality, on the whole, it has benefited universities and society. But affirmative action policies have their critics.  

Some claim that it gives an unfair advantage to non-Asian students of color at the expense of Asian and White students. Others, like former Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, claim that affirmative action places under-qualified students in schools that are ‘too difficult’ for them. However, while affirmative action may appear to be far from fair, some version is necessary to promote social equity and diversity.

According to Vox, what we call affirmative action was started in 1961 to eliminate discriminatory hiring practices in the employment of federal contractors with specific attention to race. Later, that rule was amended to include women. In the years since, affirmative action has been mainly shaped by universities’ decisions and Supreme Court cases.

The recent affirmative action case, Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. Harvard, differs from previous cases in that it centers around an ethnic group that rarely garners attention on racial matters: Asian-Americans. While Asian-Americans are people of color as well as members of ethnic minority groups, qualified Asian-Americans tend to be disproportionately rejected from colleges that use affirmative action policies.

The reasons for this under-representation are startling. The plaintiffs’ analysis of a 2013 internal investigation by Harvard University claimed that Harvard’s admissions staff consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower on personality traits, and using summary sheets, claimed that Asian-Americans were more likely to be marked as academically qualified but were also far more likely to be labeled as lacking qualities that would deserve admission and that grudging or derogatory descriptions of applicants were common. These ratings, they concluded, had a significant effect on the chances that an Asian-American student would be offered admission. Plaintiffs in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard noted that in spite of these allegations of racial bias, Harvard took no action.

In spite of the concerning findings, it is necessary to take into account all the ways that different groups of students are favored. Currently, 19 percent of Harvard’s student body is Asian. However, Harvard has admitted that if they only considered academic achievement as a factor in admission, that number would likely rise to 43 percent. However, a preference for legacies, recruited athletes, and extracurricular ratings, all of which benefit affluent White students, theoretically bring the population of Asian-Americans on campus down much lower. The plaintiffs have reasoned that demographic balance also influences admissions. Plaintiffs of the case claim that since Asian-Americans tend to be concentrated in certain regions of the country, this category is used to further discriminate against Asians-American students.

The plaintiffs for the Harvard case themselves admit that both legacy admissions and athletics greatly disadvantage minority students, especially those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. But in a strange twist, they suggest that White students don’t benefit as much as Black students from athletics admissions.

An article from the Atlantic refutes this claim. While Black students are often featured in promotional materials for college athletics, 65 percent of Ivy-league athletes are in fact White. These statistics are due, to the fact that many Ivy-league sports are expensive, and affluent White students are more likely to have the resources to participate.

According to the Atlantic article, athletes make up almost a fifth of the class at Harvard (with similar statistics at other Ivies). A study of 30 selective schools by James Schulman and former Princeton University President William Bowen claimed that athletes can enjoy up to a 48 percent boost in admissions, a bigger boost than legacy admissions (25 percent) and racial minorities (18 percent) combined.

Legacy admissions also affect the racial composition of colleges. At Harvard, legacies, who are also disproportionately White, have a 30 percent acceptance rate, in spite of significantly lower academic achievement and the plaintiffs claim that there is even a separate admissions process for affluent legacies.

Even without the data, it is clear that of the three non-academically driven programs, only affirmative action improves the campus learning experience. Affirmative action at its best brings racial and socioeconomic diversity to college campuses, something that legacy and athletics admissions cannot claim to do. While less competitive universities might need the money brought in by legacy and athletics admissions, Ivies have multi-billion-dollar endowments and wealthy donors who will contribute regardless.      

In addition, affluent White students tend to have better access to resources that allow them to engage in early admissions.     

So what should be done? The plaintiffs suggest race-blind and legacy-blind admissions without early action, along with socioeconomic affirmative action and aggressive outreach to high-performing, low-income students.

Unfortunately, while some parts of the plan have merit, it is incomplete. I agree that legacy admissions and early action perpetuate inequity. But by deliberately ignoring the benefits to affluent White students in athletics, assuming that affirmative action is what disenfranchises Asian-Americans the most, and treating affirmative action as a point-based system rather than one part of a holistic admissions process, the plan loses credibility.

A fair path forward, in my view, would also include minimizing athletic recruiting as well as maintaining some form of affirmative action. Having the population of Asian-Americans reduced minimally by affirmative action is acceptable as long as stereotypes and prejudices are not used by universities to artificially decrease the numbers of Asian-Americans. In an ideal world, racial and socioeconomic barriers wouldn’t keep people from having access to the best opportunities and best colleges, but in the real world, they do. Affirmative action is one of our best paths to equity.

In conclusion, some form of affirmative action is necessary to remedy economic and racial inequality. But discrimination against Asian-American students is unacceptable, and it must end.